My boyfriend dumped me for a scooter! As Ben Elton’s musical of her life hits the stage, Twiggy recalls an excruciating encounter with Princess Margaret and her rocky road to romance
- Twiggy, from Middlesex, recalls a romance with a boy which ended in rejection
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How early can you tell that someone is going to be a global icon, feted all over the world for her beauty, poise and elegance?
Not that early, in Twiggy’s case. The woman who was dubbed ‘the first supermodel’ recalls a brief romance with a boy from school, which ended in rejection almost as soon as it had begun.
‘We only went to the cinema once because a few days later he rang me up to tell me he wanted to buy a scooter.
Then he added, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t afford a girlfriend and buy a scooter,’ she says, shaking with laughter. ‘So I got dumped for a scooter.’
Will the boy who let Twiggy get away be in the audience to watch her life story unfold on stage – and in song? It’s a delicious thought.
As the latest figure to have her life story turned into a musical by Ben Elton – who has previously tackled cultural icons Shakespeare (in Upstart Crow) and Queen (the band, not the monarch, in We Will Rock You) – 73-year-old Twiggy is tickled by the idea that her life, which no one could have scripted, is being given the stage treatment. She can see why Ben, a family friend, was intrigued.
Twiggy, from Middlesex, speaks about an excruciating encounter with Princess Margaret and her love life
‘What happened to me was a fairy tale. It was wonderful and it wasn’t choreographed or planned at all. And, listen, I was as shocked as everybody else. I was a schoolgirl, a funny-looking kid.
”All the things you moan about – I thought I was too thin, and I was desperate for a big bust – I had them. I had a thing about my legs. I used to think they were funny little legs. But they became my fortune.’
One of the key scenes in the show will doubtless involve the now-legendary trip to the posh Mayfair salon where the 16-year-old Twiggy was offered a new style.
She didn’t necessarily want a new haircut, but says she was ‘too shy’ to say no to legendary hairdresser Leonard Lewis, better known as Leonard of Mayfair. She emerged with the pixie cut that would lead to her being hailed as ‘The Face of 1966’.
Yet she tells me that when she pitched up at home with this now-iconic hairdo, her mother was not impressed.
‘She was quite upset. She said it was just like an elf’s cap on top of my head. ‘Oh dear,’ she said, ‘they’ve spoiled your lovely hair.’ But I just jigged around in front of her and she soon had to agree it was much more me.’
I meet Twiggy (or Dame Lesley Lawson, as very few people call her) at her spacious five-bedroom Kensington apartment. She is fresh from rehearsals, nursing a mug of tea and clearly delighted to be so involved with the show. While Ben has taken charge of the script, it sounds very much like a collaboration. ‘We spent hours talking. He must be sick to death of me!’ she says.
She seems particularly taken by the scale of the story he is telling. Close-Up: The Twiggy Musical is not just an ugly-duckling-to-swan tale, or, for that matter, a trip down memory lane to the Swinging 60s. It’s the story of an entire social shift.
‘Obviously, it’s about me and what happened to me, but what he does brilliantly is that he comments on the social aspects of society in the 60s, and after the war. What was going on in the world had a huge relevance in terms of what happened to me.
Playing the lead is West End star Elena Skye, who’s previously starred in We Will Rock You and Les Misérables. She’s blessed with the same features as Twiggy. Pictured: The pair together
‘I think he found that fascinating. Youth suddenly became the thing to be and had a voice like never before. It was amazing. Weren’t we lucky?’
At the time, what fascinated people about Twiggy (so called because of those twig-like legs she hated) was that she was so unlike any of the other models around, and we’re not just talking about her physique.
‘Remember that I was probably the first working-class model,’ she points out.
Models were tall, and were usually from posh backgrounds or middle-class like Jean Shrimpton, her ‘heroine’.
Twiggy was just 5ft 6in and weighed 6½st. At times it seemed like the three rows of heavy false eyelashes must have weighed more than she did. Yet within weeks of that pixie cut she was modelling for Vogue and Elle, jetting off to the States, and being talked of in the same revered tones as The Beatles.
Close-Up is a musical, so the sounds of the 60s will be paramount. Playing the lead is West End star Elena Skye, who’s previously starred in We Will Rock You and Les Misérables. She’s blessed with the same elfin features as Twiggy – but also a huge voice.
‘She’s fabulous,’ Twiggy says. ‘The first time I met her, she was nervous and I was nervous. But there was a quality I could pick up on.
‘I could see why Ben had chosen her. And she can really sing! It’s like a juke box musical. What he’s done is chosen smashing songs. There’s a piece about my parents meeting, so there’s a 30s song to go with it.’
She sounds wistful, but these were not halcyon days. The youngest of three daughters, she grew up in a semi in Neasden, north London. Her mother Nell suffered from depression and would occasionally be hospitalised.
‘I think my mother had what would today be called bipolar disorder. Her nerves had also been shattered from the war.
‘Once, a bomb dropped at the end of our back garden and blew the windows in. It must have been so frightening.’
The musical, although billed as ‘uplifting and empowering’, doesn’t shy away from such darkness. It also tackles the snobbery and sexism she faced.
Princess Margaret was particularly unpleasant when they were seated together at a dinner. After ignoring her for a long time, the princess eventually asked Twiggy her name.
‘At that time I must have had one of the most famous names and recognised faces on the planet,’ Twiggy recalls.
“Well, Ma’am,” I said, smiling sweetly, “my real name is Lesley Hornby, but most people call me Twiggy.” Her Royal Highness took a long drag on her cigarette, puffed a column of smoke out and said, “How unfortunate.” And turned away.’
Twiggy is the latest figure to have her life story turned into a musical by Ben Elton (pictured) – who has previously tackled cultural icons Shakespeare and Queen
It’s a miracle Twiggy emerged from it all intact. She credits her no-nonsense upbringing – and her father, Norman.
‘I’d never have done anything to upset him. He’d say to me, “You’ve got to be careful. You mustn’t take drugs.”
Everything was around in the 60s. The Mods took purple hearts [amphetamines], but I was too scared. I owe a lot to the family, who kept me grounded. When I went home I was just Les, helping with the washing up. Even when my picture was everywhere.’
Norman had some knowledge of showbiz, having been involved in building sets at film studios.
He was adamant that if he couldn’t be there to protect her, her boyfriend, Justin de Villeneuve, should be. Justin was ten years older, a Jack the Lad, and he became her manager.
Questions might be asked now about her youth, as she was just 15 when they met, but Twiggy says, ‘All I knew was that he was 25 and drove a red Spitfire and I thought he was wonderfully glamorous.
‘I’d never met people of that age; it was quite an age gap. I was a child, really, at 15, and our relationship was almost like a father-daughter one at times. He looked after me, I depended on him.’
In her 1997 autobiography she wrote, ‘Looking back, he should never have taken me out, I was far too young and he was far too old.’
Career-wise, she’s ticked every box, segueing from modelling into acting and a pop career. Legendary director Ken Russell cast her in his 1971 film The Boy Friend, for which she won two Golden Globes, now proudly displayed in a sitting room at her home.
Those twig-like legs carried her to Broadway, where she hung out with stars like Fred Astaire, who invited her to tea. ‘He was just so charming.’
Her private life has been equally colourful. The relationship with Justin ended in 1973. She married American actor Michael Whitney in 1977 and their daughter Carly was born in 1978. His alcoholism all but destroyed their marriage, and he died in 1983. ‘Horrible as it was, you learn a lot from it,’ she says. ‘But it was very sad for Carly, losing her father.’
She’s been married to actor Leigh Lawson since 1988. So what’s the secret of that relationship, which could have been complicated (he too had a child from a previous relationship)?
‘I’ve got a gorgeous husband who I adore. If somebody is talented it’s very attractive. And he still makes me laugh!’
She fears for youngsters who crave the things that landed in her lap. ‘I didn’t set out to be famous. You see kids on the telly and they say, “I want to be famous.”
‘Not that they want to be a wonderful writer or singer or tap dancer. That’s madness. For lots of famous people fame hasn’t been good for them. It has destroyed them.’
But not her, the ultimate survivor of the 60s. Her real secret is that she doesn’t obsess about those days.
‘People always seem to think I’m always thinking about the 60s, but I never do from one day to the next. Unless, of course, I’m asked.’
- Close-Up: The Twiggy Musical opens at Menier Chocolate Factory in London on 27 September, with previews from 18 September.
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